Mapmaking, Part I

beige analog compass

Mapmaking is 90% art and 10% science. There are certain things that are required, certain conventions to be followed, it’s true. But for the most part, the effectiveness of a map, like any graphic in your book, comes from its design.  While I cannot provide any definitive guide as to what your map ought to look like when it’s done, I can try to provide a few pointers so that it does not come out looking too unprofessional.

In this first installment, I’ll be going over the basic components that all maps should have regardless of their size or style.


This one also goes without saying. Sometimes the map is self-explanatory and does not strictly need a title–particularly if your book or series is named for the world or region pictured–but it can still look nice and professional if you include one


Every map is going to have symbols to represent landmarks, buildings, countries, etc. What these symbols are will depend on how big an area your map is covering, what’s important to the story, and things like that. Now, some symbols are self-explanatory (mountains and trees tend to look the same on every map, for instance), and so need not be included in your key. However, some symbols may not actually resemble what they are supposed to represent, and so need to be explained on the key.


This one rather goes without saying, but if you don’t label your symbols–both in the key and on the map–people aren’t going to know what’s what. For instance, if you draw a circle to represent a city, but have several such circles on your actual map, you’ll need to label the cities with names, or else their position means nothing.


Obviously, you’ve got to have some indicator of direction. Most maps typically have north at the top of the page by default, but there may be occasions when you need to change the map’s orientation. Or else, you may just want to mess with it for stylistic reasons. Either way, it is imperative to let readers know which way is which, especially if there is a lot of travelling in your story.


Scale is basically how big an area you are covering. Usually it is represented by a bar near the key and compass, and is a useful device for measuring distance on your map. The bar should represent a fixed length (ideally with smaller increments marked out on it as well). This can be in miles, leagues, or any other measure of length, again depending on the distances involved. Now, while it is not strictly necessary in many instances, it is good to include in small-scale maps (i.e. those that cover a larger area), especially if it is a map of a real place.


This is also not strictly required, but usually–especially if there is a degree of artistic skill involved–the creator of a map will want to have his or her name written somewhere on the map. If it is made by hand, a discreet signature in the corner will suffice, along with a mention of the map creator/provider on your copyright page.

Those are the fundamental elements. Come back next week when I discuss the more artistic considerations of mapmaking for your book.

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is a writer, linguist, historian, and nature-lover from Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of the young adult series Sauragia and Knights of Aralia, as well as the 'Woodland Tales' anthology for children. Several of his shorter works have also appeared in various print and online periodicals over the years. In between writing and publishing, he likes to draw, spend long hours outdoors, and read. His favorite authors include M. I. McAllister, Brian Jacques, and Alexandre Dumas.

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